“War for the Planet of the Apes” concludes the best sci-fi trilogy in recent memory. Like 2014’s “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes,” it’s a dark and foreboding film uninterested in playing by summer blockbuster rules. Murder, betrayal, hatred and vengeance take center stage as Caesar’s (Andy Serkis) clan of intelligent apes battle a humanity on its last legs, and the result is riveting.
Caesar wants to bring his tribe to safety, but an act of mercy brings the war to his doorstep. Egged on by tragedy and fueled by bloodthirst, Caesar sets out with his companions Maurice (Karin Konoval), Rocket (Terry Notary) and Luca (Michael Adamthwaite) to exact his retribution. His target is Colonel McCullough (Woody Harrelson), a twisted soldier hellbent on destroying the apes.
Along the way, Caesar’s group bring two new members into their fold. There’s Nova (Amiah Miller), an orphaned girl who mysteriously lost her ability to speak. She seems to be a mere reference to a character from the original “Planet of the Apes,” but ends up being a useful ally in more ways than one. Then there’s “Bad Ape” (Steve Zahn), a cowardly chimp who provides much-needed comedic relief to break through the movie’s oppressive tension.
“War” is nothing if not ambitious. Weta Workshop’s CG apes have ascended to a ridiculous level of detail, able to convey the tiniest of expressions. These digital creations appear tangible, alive. Matt Reeves, who once again directs after helming “Dawn,” knows this and confidently lingers on Caesar’s face at pivotal points of emotion. The illusion never shatters.
Just as the effects have gotten bolder, the story has, too. Reeves and co-writer Mark Bomback dare to downgrade this finale’s scale and instead hedge their bets on raising the emotional stakes. There is consequently little all-out war between man and ape in this movie, which is more “The Great Escape” than “Saving Private Ryan.” That’s because the movie’s second half takes place in just one location: McCullough’s ape concentration camp, where he forces them to build a defensive wall. Nonetheless, the scenario is epic in the truest sense of the word.
Serkis is magnetic as a Caesar disillusioned by loss. This simian now only sees the ugliness of man and has also abandoned his old dictum that “ape not kill ape.” Serkis gives Caesar the desperate fury that makes “War” an occasionally uncomfortable experience—this character who rejected those that chose revenge now charts the same course to self-destruction. This sets up the film’s dramatic question: Can Caesar rediscover his empathy?
Luckily, some of the old Caesar still remains: Serkis provides the strength necessary to make him an inspiring Mosaic figure, and the vulnerability that leaves the certainty of his survival in question. Without Serkis’ striking motion-capture performance to reference, the visual effects artists could not have brought him to life so effectively.
Unfortunately, “War” still suffers as its predecessors have in its portrayal of humans. The film grants McCullough an interesting motivation and presents him as misguided, but Harrelson, like David Oyelowo and Gary Oldman, battles for relevance within a largely underwritten role. It’s a disappointment only compounded by the fact the fantastic villain from “Dawn,” Koba, lingers over the proceedings.
Nonetheless, “War ”and the its predecessors serve as a powerful case for the need to listen and understand one another. Most impressively of all, Serkis, Reeves and Weta have made an all-digital protagonist one of cinema’s greatest and most human heroes. The “Apes” reboot trilogy worked because when you look into Caesar’s eyes, you can see a soul.
“War for the Planet of the Apes”
Running Time: 142 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Score: 4.5/5 stars